Play by Your Own Rules

by Mark on September 1, 2013 · 4 comments

Have you ever tried to make a change in your life but were unable to sustain the change? What a stupid question, right? Pretty much every human in the universe has experienced this problem. Why is that?

Research by Roy Baumeister and others shows that willpower is an exhaustible resource. Every time that you resist that delicious chocolate chip cookie, you draw on your mental energy in order to exert self-control. As you continue to exert self-control, you deplete your reserve of mental energy. When the willpower tank is empty, it becomes extremely difficult to exert self-control. That’s when you experience a moment of weakness and fail to sustain the change.

Rules can help with self-control.

When I was reading studies about willpower, I stumbled on the concept of “implementation intentions.” An implementation intention is simply an “If-Then” rule. For example, “If it is 7 PM on Monday night, then I will go to the gym.” The research on implementation intentions shows that they can be very effective in helping us reach our goals.

[Note: Rules don’t have to be worded in an “If-Then” format. For example, the “If-Then” is implied in the rule “Go to the gym on Monday nights at 7PM.”]

I began to realize that my behavior is far more consistent when I have specific rules that I live by. Why am I so successful about going to work from Monday through Friday without missing a day? That level of consistency is pretty astonishing compared to my other desired behaviors.

Is it because I have such strong willpower? Obviously not, or I would be applying such epic willpower to every aspect of my life. Is it because going to work is a habit? A habit is something that you do automatically without thinking. It can’t be a habit because I don’t go into work on weekends, holidays, or vacations. I have to consciously decide to go to work based on what day it is.

I think the answer is that I have a very specific rule that says “If it is a workday and it is 8AM, then I leave for work” (the time has varied over the years, but I always have a rule that I try to live by). Most people have a similar rule, which is why my consistency at going to work is not so unusual.

The rule must be specific to be effective.

Quite often when we want to make a change, we come up with general rules like, “I’m going to exercise more.” Vague rules are rarely effective because it isn’t clear to our brains what we should do at any point in time. I can exercise now, I can exercise later today, or I can exercise tomorrow. Or the next day.

We don’t like breaking the rules that we have for ourselves. By promising myself that I will exercise later, I am essentially rationalizing to myself that I will satisfy my rule, just not right now. If I don’t feel like I’m breaking my rule by not exercising now, then I will be a lot more comfortable with procrastinating on exercising. This vague type of thinking causes me to continually procrastinate until I just give up entirely.

I play by my own rules.

For the last few months, I have been experimenting with several rules that I have very consciously designed to fit my own life. From the outset, I knew that my rules couldn’t be dependent on being more disciplined or having more willpower. The rules have to work with the person that I am right now, not the person that I hope to be. I think this is critical. In the past, I tried to behave consistently with the person that I hoped to be, but since I wasn’t that person, it was never sustainable.

Here are some principles that have guided my thinking:

  1. The rule must be specific. I already talked about this. Don’t go crazy, but consider the 5 W’s: What, When, Where, Why, and with Whom.
  2. Try to be good 90% of the time. This is an arbitrary target that I don’t actually track. It is just something that I try to keep in mind. Tim Ferriss talked about his “cheat day.” He eats a very healthy diet 6 days a week, and he reserves 1 day a week to go wild and eat without limits (in other words, he is good with his diet 85.7% of the time). This works. If you know that you are not permanently denying yourself pleasure, it becomes easier to hold out. You don’t have to be perfect to achieve great results, and allowing yourself to cheat guilt-free once in a while just makes life better.
  3. Have a theory for why the rule should work. You will obviously be able to design more effective rules if you understand why the rule works in terms of giving you the result you desire. Also, some rules might not have immediately noticeable results. If you understand why this is so, you will be more likely to stick with it.
  4. Don’t shoot for the stars. Don’t introduce too many rules at once, and don’t make it too difficult. The amount of willpower that will be required should be pretty negligible. There is always time to add more rules and gradually increase the difficulty later on. No one starts out disciplined. Have you ever seen a disciplined baby? Me neither.
  5. The purpose of living by rules is to make life better and be happier. Most people think of rules as being no fun. As long as you think this, you will never follow them. For me, if I perceive a rule as being too painful and not improving my life, then that’s a deal breaker, and I reject the rule. I won’t be able to sustain it anyway. There is also a world of difference between having to live by someone else’s rules and freely choosing to live by your own rules.

The first rule that I designed for myself began around April 2013. I was becoming increasingly distracted by the Internet while I was at work even when I wasn’t on it. It was getting harder to focus. The rule was simple:

Don’t use the Internet for non-work-related purposes at work. I do allow myself two exceptions. For example, I listen to music on Pandora while I work and use Kindle Cloud Reader to read while I eat my lunch, but this isn’t using the Internet as we normally think of it (I could bring my Kindle and a radio into work, but that would be pretty pointless and less convenient). I deleted just about all of the bookmarks on my work computer that were basically personal. I also turned off my personal e-mail notifications on my cell phone.

Considering my problem with Internet addiction, this rule has worked surprisingly well for me. My focus and productivity has improved dramatically. This rule doesn’t require me to be perfect. I just have to wait until I get home to indulge myself. I sometimes write down little notes to look things up later in order to reduce the temptation.

I occasionally have broken my rule in order to do things like update my personal calendar in Google Calendar, look up directions in Google Maps, or use Google to search for the contact information for my doctor. However, all of these things were to achieve very specific objectives that were extremely brief.

This rule is definitely a keeper.

My Weight-Loss Rules

I began adding more rules on June 17, 2013. I had been unhappy with my weight for quite some time, so I set a goal to get my 7-day-average weight below 170 pounds by September 30th (the reason that I use the 7-day average is to eliminate normal fluctuations based on things like hydration/dehydration or eating an unusual amount of food on a particular day).

Here are some of the rules that I have been playing by:

  1. Only eat during an 8-hour “feeding window” from 12 PM to 8 PM. All my calories must be consumed during this period. This wasn’t a drastic change for me. I wasn’t much of a breakfast eater anyway. I basically had to stop putting creamer in my coffee in the mornings and stopped snacking after 8 PM. This is a form of “intermittent fasting” whereby I fast for 16 hours of every day. My theory was that intermittent fasting should improve my insulin sensitivity and reduce my carbohydrate cravings, which were significant at the time.
  2. While I am at work, only eat a huge mixed salad with protein and fat sources such as grilled chicken, hard-boiled eggs, and tuna salad. The vending machines at work are only 25 cents, and being a carb junkie, I would find myself eating a few candy bars a day, often when I wasn’t even hungry. The huge salad gave me no excuse to pretend that I was hungry. This rule means that I don’t eat pizza on Fridays (free pizza day), and I don’t eat any of the goodies that coworkers continually bring in. Mentally, it is easier to be good because I know that it is only during work. Also, by not giving myself a choice, I don’t have to worry about choosing poorly. There are plenty of delicious but unhealthy lunches at the cafeteria, but I’m not tempted because I go straight to the salad bar. The only times that I broke my rule so far were for the annual barbecue and the one time we got Chinese food instead of pizza.
  3. Try to avoid processed carbohydrates. I haven’t made this into a specific rule yet (one step at a time). I just try to limit how much bread, pasta, and added sugar that I consume. I still eat things like Lean Pockets and have room for improvement. Part of the problem is that I hate cooking. Instead I focus on eating things like vegetables, chicken, eggs, steak, burgers (without the bun), bacon, and spicy Italian sausage.
  4. Don’t eat fast food. I have a Wendy’s right on the corner where I live, and I’m a sucker for the Baconator, and of course, French fries and huge lemonade. I could theoretically get a salad there, but you know how that would go. “Uh, I’ll have the Double Baconator combo please. Large, of course.”
  5. Don’t keep junk food, beer, or wine in the house. I don’t forbid myself to have goodies. I just don’t keep them in the house. I suck at moderation. If I have ice cream in the house, I will eat mass quantities until it is gone. If I have beer or wine in the house, I will indulge a little more than I should, which not only makes me feel crappy the next day, but it adds a lot of empty calories. If I want to go out and treat myself, that’s fine. The important thing is to be good 90% of the time.
  6. Don’t keep food out in plain view. Every time you walk past food, it will act like a trigger and remind you of food whether you are hungry or not. Out of sight, out of mind. Keeping snacks, especially, in plain sight is the worst thing you can do. Every time you see them, it sucks a little willpower out of you.

These are the rules that I follow during my normal day-to-day life. If I go to visit my parents, take a vacation, or hang out with friends, I don’t stick rigidly to the rules, because I know that I don’t have to be perfect to see the benefits. Trying to be perfect will make it a lot less fun, which doesn’t work.

The basic concept behind my rules

I wanted to avoid the factors that I felt caused me to fail in the past.

My theory: Any change that places huge demands on my willpower will eventually fail. Guaranteed.

I didn’t want to count calories or “points.” I didn’t want to be hungry all the time. I didn’t want to give up all pleasure from eating. I didn’t want to have a constant craving for carbs. All of these things would have made me feel deprived. It would be a constant drain on my willpower. I felt that my best chance at sustainable success is to behave well most of the time without it being painful.

I also decided that it could be helpful if my rules were “context-sensitive.” This means that the rule could apply to certain circumstances and not others. Eating only huge salads at work is an example of a rule being context-sensitive. I obviously eat many other things beside salads outside of work. If I could only eat salads in every situation, then it would be far more difficult to eat salads at work.

I try to be strict about my rules in normal day-to-day life while allowing myself more flexibility during special occasions (such as vacations or social events). It is easier to be strict most of the time if you know that you can occasionally treat yourself without guilt. Trying to be perfect seems to be an order of magnitude more difficult than just trying to be good most of the time. Trying to be perfect just seems to make people snap and binge.

My Results So Far

I keep a little notepad in the bathroom next to my scale, and I have been writing down my weight almost every single day since February 7, 2011, so I was already in the habit of tracking my weight (I also enter my weight into a spreadsheet and graph it). Since I started my new weight-loss rules, my 7-day-average weight has declined from 185.1 pounds to 172.6 (as of September 1st). That’s a decrease of 12.5 pounds in 11 weeks, or just over 1 pound per week. The great part about it is that it has been the easiest weight loss of my life.

I do get a little hungry as noon approaches due to the intermittent fasting, but it isn’t bad at all. Many people might not want to eat salads every day at work, but I don’t even really notice it. I’m too focused on reading my Kindle books while I’m eating (and besides, I like the grilled chicken, tuna salad, and hard-boiled eggs). My carbohydrate cravings have virtually disappeared. I frequently used to binge on ice cream or other sweets, but I have barely eaten any sweets in the last few months. Surprisingly, I haven’t really missed them.

Although it’s too soon to tell whether this strategy of playing by my own rules will be effective and sustainable over the long run, the results seem promising so far. The process hasn’t been painful at all, and I love to see the chart of my weight go steadily downward. I am experimenting with a few other rules as well, and I plan to adapt them as necessary.

Play by your own rules.

My rules won’t work for everyone, because everyone is different and my rules were designed for me. I live alone, which obviously makes it much easier. I don’t have to worry about what others want to eat for dinner. I don’t have to convince my family not to keep sweets in the house. I work where there is a cafeteria with a great salad bar. If you are obese, there is a very good chance that you are very insulin and leptin resistant, which means you may have an even stronger craving for carbohydrates than I did and might feel more hunger than me.

Don’t let this stop you. Experiment with your own rules. You never know. They just might allow you to sustain and enjoy those changes that you have been meaning to make all these years.

John Sonmez October 11, 2013 at 11:22 pm

Fantastic. This is pretty much exactly what I do as well. Set the rules, don’t make decisions. Just follow the rules. You can always change the rules, but almost never break them.

Mark October 12, 2013 at 6:26 am

Exactly! It’s kind of funny that it works so well. Many people encourage others to make MORE decisions, not less, but that never works for me.

Ivona Poyntz October 18, 2013 at 4:11 am

I’ve picked up a few really good tips here, thanks. I like the If=then concept, and I agree about taking away the decision. One thing I would say is, with work, the decision isn’t ours: so we can’t renege. With issues such as diets, the results being tangible can be a powerful motivational force. Its with the intangibles that one has problems. but I’m going to try the if+then rule, it has motivated me.

Mark October 18, 2013 at 7:41 am

Thanks, Ivona. I hope it helps. I know it has helped me.

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